Analysis

Not Interested in War With U.S., Iran Walks a Tightrope

An escalation with Washington could turn Iranian citizens against their rulers and neutralize Tehran's diplomacy of intimidation – but the Trump administration's lack of strategy may spark a conflict

Iranian worshippers burn a representation of a U.S. flag during a rally after Friday prayer in Tehran, Iran, May 10, 2019.
Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

The sabotage of two Saudi Arabian oil tankers so soon after “four commercial, civilian trading vessels of various nationalities… suffered acts of sabotage,” as the United Arab Emirates laconically put it, attest to mounting potential for violent conflict in the Gulf. The attacks ostensibly bolster America's warning, which reportedly is based off Israeli intelligence assessments, that Iran intends to destabilize oil shipping and trade in the Gulf.

“Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure,” the U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, warned on Thursday.

>> By threatening nuclear deal, Iran is playing right into Trump’s hands | Analysis ■ Iran dialing back on nuclear deal could be first step toward armed conflict with West | Analysis

In parallel, a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps stated that “If [the Americans] make a move, we will hit them in the head.” If in the past, the concentration of American power had been “a serious threat for us… it is a target and the threats have turned into opportunities.”

On top of this, a senior ayatollah, Yousef Tabatabai Nejad, threatened during a Friday sermon that the Americans’ “billion [-dollar] fleet can be destroyed with one missile.”

No organization or entity, Iranian or otherwise, took credit for the sabotage operations. There is presently no intelligence that decisively identifies the perpetrators. The rumor mill, however, could spark an uncontrollable escalation all by itself. Iran is denying responsibility and blaming provocateurs who would have something to gain from the conflict. It is hinting mainly at the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, the latter of which, it suspects, could profit from a military clash between the U.S. and Iran.

The U.S. has fallen short of accusing Iranian or pro-Iranian elements of orchestrating the sabotage. But the attacks could serve Washington to send more troops to the Gulf, in addition to the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and the bomber and fighter jet fleets at the American air base in Qatar.

But the U.S. doesn’t need an excuse to cram the Gulf with American forces, just as Saudi Arabia and the UAE can summon U.S. forces at any point in time, even without a volatile trigger like sabotaged oil tankers or merchant vessels. These two Gulf nations, allied with Bahrain, form the head of the Arabian arrow against Tehran. But they aren't eager for a military confrontation with Iran, considering their proximity to its missiles and the potential damage they could suffer in a conflict.

Israel might look like the warmonger in this situation, and high-ranking Israelis – including the prime minister – have said that if there is no choice, Israel will act alone against Iran. But that threat was directed at Iran’s nuclear capacity, and is part of Israel’s strategy to persuade the international community to impose sanctions on Iran.

The Trump administration's newest sanctions, which include canceling the exemption eight nations had to buy oil from Iran, sanctions on Iran’s metals industry, designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terror organization and pressuring Europe and European countries, are supposed to placate Israel, at this stage at least.

A military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran over conventional issues such as sabotaging boats, rather than the nuclear threat, could if anything weaken Israel’s claim. It could also divide the international community and the superpowers just as Iran played into Israel and Washington's hands, with the announcement that it would be downsizing its commitment to the nuclear agreement, which brought Europe nations closer to the American position.

Despite its threats following the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May – that if it couldn’t export oil, neither could the other Gulf countries – strangling marine trade in the Gulf and triggering a military confrontation isn’t in Iran's interests. Tehran still aspires to a political balancing act: Controlling the force of the threats it disseminates, which push Europe to stick to the nuclear agreement, and locating loopholes in the sanctions against it in order to survive economically.

Iran already dropped its strategic bombshell when it announced it would be scaling back its commitment to the nuclear agreement, and is waiting for the diplomatic fallout. Picking a fight in the Gulf, and making itself look like a warmonger, could relieve Europe and other irresolute countries from their dilemma and neuter the effect of Tehran’s diplomacy of threats.

Granted, an armed conflict could distract the Iranian people from the country’s economic difficulties. But it could also cost Iran enormous sums of money with nothing to show for it afterwards, economically or diplomatically, which could in turn delegitimize the regime. The traditional Iranian strategy of avoiding direct armed conflict with superpowers, or any other country for that matter, could shape its behavior now too, insofar as the developments in the Gulf depend on it.

But what could upset Iran's calculations is the absence of a clear American strategy and goals. Does the U.S. still aspire to overthrow the regime in Tehran, or has it really let go of that particular goal? Does the U.S. want to fix the nuclear agreement, or torpedo the missile program, too? Is pushing back Iranian involvement in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries part of the American road map? Does Trump aspire to a single comprehensive deal, or a deal in stages? And finally, what does Trump mean when he gives the Iranians a phone number to call the moment they’re ready to talk?

These questions don't only represent the dilemma in American policy, but the absence of answers also makes it impossible to formulate a strategy which could achieve these murky goals. The danger is that a military clash could turn into a strategy, based on the assumption that a display of American strength and proof of Washington's willingness to use it, even to a limited extent, will bring Iran to the negotiating table. But Trump already tried that strategy with North Korea, and it didn’t exactly work. Iran is unlikely to be easier.